Conservation priorities

Print edition : March 02, 2002

Will the National Wildlife Action Plan 2002-2016 be able to counter the forces of ecological destruction and protect India's natural ecosystems from over-exploitation, contamination and degradation?

ON January 21, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee released the National Wildlife Action Plan (NWAP) 2002-2016, at a meeting of the Indian Board for Wildlife (IBWL). This top advisory body on issues relating to nature was meeting after a gap of five years. And the NWAP was only the second one in India's history, the first having been put forward in 1983.

There is a desperate need for a new action plan. Two decades after the first NWAP, we live amidst a considerably different set of circumstances. The forces of ecological destruction are several times stronger. The rate of loss of biological diversity - that incredibly rich range of plants, animals and micro-organisms on which human life itself depends - is today higher than ever before. India has moved into an era of "globalisation", with natural resources up for grabs. New and powerful trade cartels are making a mockery of the bold efforts to save threatened species like the tiger. Village residents in many areas have become hostile to the current model of wildlife protection. And significantly, political support for conservation is now amongst the weakest in independent India.



Creatures small and beautiful deserve as much attention as mega-fauna specimens such as the tiger (here in Ranthambore).

Will the new NWAP help counter these trends, or will it remain a nicely worded, glossy document meant for the shelves?

Framed by a committee of 15 wildlife experts and ecologists that was set up in 1998 by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests(MoEF), the NWAP has 13 major focal areas. Each of these has a listing of the proposed priority projects, with a time-frame, and agencies responsible.

The National Wildlife Action Plan has 13 chapters: 1. Strengthening the network of protected areas (declared under the Wild Life Protection Act of 1972); 2. Effective management of these protected areas; 3. Conservation of wild (especially threatened) species and their habitats; 4. Restoration of degraded habitats outside protected areas; 5. Control of poaching and illegal wildlife trade; 6. Research and monitoring; 7. Human resource development; 8. People's participation; 9. Awareness and education; 10. Wildlife tourism; 11. Domestic and international legislation; 12. Financial measures; and 13. Integration of conservation with other sectors of planning.

Many of the basic thrusts of NWAP 1983 are reiterated, including the strong focus on legally notified protected areas as the major vehicle of conservation. Conservation of threatened species, control of wildlife trade and poaching, and education and awareness are the other continuing focal areas. New or strengthened areas of attention include community involvement in conservation, conservation outside protected areas, and sensitisation of developmental sectors towards conservation issues. The plan recommends that at least 2 per cent of the country's budget should go into forest conservation, and at least 15 per cent of this amount into wildlife. In order to achieve this, it recognises that decision-makers need to be convinced about the economic, water and livelihood security that wildlife habitats provide.

THE first imperative for conservation in India is making the development model more ecologically and socially sensitive. The major cause for loss of wildlife (and of livelihoods of people dependent on natural resources) is the destruction of natural habitats, and that is what today's 'development' model is best at. From the 1960s to the 1990s, for instance, Gujarat lost 70 per cent of its forest cover due to dam-related submergence or displacement. The story is repeated through the country, dams being ably assisted by industries, cities, ports, and infrastructure projects. Half of India's forests are gone, 40 per cent of its mangroves have been wiped out; a third of its biodiversity-rich wetlands have been drained out. Kalpavriksh, the non-governmental organisation, has put together a list of 50 national parks and wildlife sanctuaries threatened by mining. The consumerist lifestyles of the rich also take their toll, whether it is for marble mining in Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan or car rallies proposed through the Rann of Kutch Wild Ass Sanctuary in Gujarat.

Globalisation has increased the toll, for example for mining or in marine areas. Thousands of turtles are killed every year in the nets of commercial trawlers off Orissa's coasts, while critical wildlife breeding habitats in lagoons like Chilka (also in Orissa) and Pulicat on the Andhra Pradesh-Tamil Nadu border) are devastated by shrimp and prawn farming... all for exports. Toxic wastes are being welcomed into India, their foreign exchange potential being the lure. The 1990s saw a spurt in moves by State governments to reduce the extent of protected areas to accommodate industrial interests.

What does the NWAP have to offer by way of a challenge to this trend? It declares that "the national development agenda must recognise the imperative of identifying and protecting natural ecosystems from over-exploitation, contamination and degradation. Short-term economic gains must not be permitted to undermine ecological security." The NWAP also recognises that natural habitats are critical to water security, and the "source of survival of millions of people, in particular as a source of NTFP and aquatic resources". It suggests the following measures:

* Declaration of the surrounds of protected areas, wildlife corridors, biosphere reserves, World Heritage Sites, and Ramsar (convention) sites (wetlands of international importance) as ecologically sensitive under the Environment Protection Act (which would enable the government to regulate destructive activities);

* Re-orientation of laws relating to development and resource utilisation, to harmonise them with laws relating to wildlife and environment;

* Integration of wildlife into development sectors, including through the adoption of a regional planning approach and the declaration of a radius of 5 km around protected areas as special development areas;

* Phasing out mining, and avoiding major roads, railway lines and dams in critical wildlife habitats;

* Regulation of tourism, and its orientation towards conservation and local community benefits.

There is considerable stress on tackling poaching and trade in wildlife products through the creation of a National Wildlife Crime Cell, police-like powers to forest staff, setting up of special courts for wildlife related cases, and special vigilance measures on trade routes with the help of Customs, the Army, the Coast Guard, and the police.

Unfortunately, despite attempts by some members of the committee, the NWAP stops short of what should have been another major shift in conservation. For far too long Indian conservationists have focussed almost exclusively on protected areas (covering less than 5 per cent of the area of the country), to the detriment of biodiversity that exists in other areas. The NWAP only talks of regenerating degraded habitats outside protected areas, and encouraging communities to protect habitats in their jurisdiction. This is a missed opportunity.

The second major imperative for conservation in India is to make it a people's movement. 'Wildlifers' in the 1970s depended heavily on the goodwill of the then Prime Minister (who on the other hand furthered the suicidal course of development that her father initiated). What they did not realise, and what some still refuse to recognise, is that an initiative that rests on the interest of one political leader is simply not sustainable. Worse, the model of conservation that was ushered in was singularly lacking in social sensitivity. It ignored the survival and livelihood dependence of several million people on the natural resources within wildlife habitats, and overlooked the conservation traditions and beliefs that many of these communities possessed and practised. The result was a conservation programme that tried to separate human communities from wildlife. In a country where most of the land is used for some human purpose or the other, this kind of exclusionary vision was bound to fail.

The results of this model are clear. 'Protected areas' is a hated term. In most States, the creation of new protected areas is a political nightmare, generating public hostility. Conflicts between wildlife managers and local populations are commonplace. Alienated and hostile village residents are used as fronts and conduits for poaching and timber theft.

In Himachal Pradesh, a crucial part of the Great Himalayan National Park was denotified, ostensibly to protect the interests of two tiny villages inside, but actually to allow the construction of the Parbati hydel project. Inequities and vested interests within communities are aided and abetted by corrupt officials, poachers, and others, to undermine traditional conservation customs and practices. Often the protected area status itself does this: after the Kanger Ghati National Park in Bastar was notified, fishing became "illegal"... so adivasis who would earlier catch fish in a sustainable manner using plant-based poisons, now rush in, use the banned pesticide DDT, and rush out before park officials can catch them.

DOES the NWAP mark a turning point in the conservationist's vision regarding local communities? It does speak of local communities having the "first lien" on biomass resources, and the need to "reconcile livelihood security with wildlife protection". It proposes the following actions:

* Support to community-based conservation initiatives;

* Creation of participatory management institutions for every protected area;

* Formulation of management plans for protected areas, and working plans for forests, by teams involving local communities;

* Use of traditional knowledge in all aspects of conservation;

* Providing various benefits of conservation to local people; this includes an interesting recommendation to channel all tourism receipts of protected areas into a trust fund from which 70 per cent should go for local community use;

* Employment in wildlife programmes only to local people;

* Biomass and water resource rights for personal consumption, to local people who demonstrate conservation practices;

* Innovative measures to prevent damage to crops and livestock; speedier and simpler procedures to compensate such damage;

* Access to information for local people, and public hearings with them (though, strangely, this is restricted to areas outside protected areas).

A potentially powerful thrust is on identifying and declaring community managed wildlife habitats as community reserves, a new category under the proposed amended Wild Life (Protection) Act. (Kalpavriksh is putting together a directory of such sites, and estimates that there are probably several thousands of them.) The NWAP incorporates a suggestion that this writer has been making for years: to increase the protected area coverage to 10 per cent of India's landmass (from the current 4.7 per cent), by adding categories such as community conserved areas, and most forest lands by reorienting their management towards ecological services.

The gains of many of the positive recommendations could be offset partly by some rather regressive clauses. Though there was some dissension, it seemed that the dominant view in the committee was to prohibit clearly the forcible displacement of communities from within protected areas. Mysteriously, however, the final document advocates relocation to be in a "participatory manner, taking people into confidence", but only "as far as possible". Worse, it states that communities who want "civic and other amenities" inside protected areas "should be encouraged and aided to move out", and that States should "prevent land-based development activities within national parks and sanctuaries". These are extraordinary, potentially anti-constitutional statements.

The agreement in the committee had been that urban facilities should not be allowed inside protected areas. But the NWAP seems to deny everything from a water pump to watershed management. Surely anyone can see that if this is implemented, the induced displacement would be as much forced as actually throwing people out. This is not only socially unjust but it could backfire seriously on wildlife habitats, forcing village residents to destroy natural habitats for livelihoods. Village residents inside the Sariska Tiger Reserve and elsewhere have shown that one can have ecologically appropriate civic amenities, and land and water development, while improving the ecological status of the surrounds. These examples should have instructed the NWAP's vision.

Another lacuna is that panchayati raj institutions have not been provided a key role in the matter. Like it or not, these institutions are going to become increasingly powerful, and conservationists will have to find ways of relating to them.

The process of making the NWAP has left much to be desired. Fifteen people, no experts in their own right, have drafted a plan with implications for millions of others. It is unclear how this draft was circulated, but certainly there was no public forum at which it was discussed. The final version was not even shown to some members of the drafting committee, and constitutes a number of unfortunate dilutions. (This writer was a member of the committee.) It is doubtful that such a process will generate ownership of the action plan amongst any more than a handful of people. A pity, since this is a subject that is crying out for mass ownership.

One major weakness that the NWAP 1983 suffered from was the absence of a dedicated implementation and monitoring mechanism.

Despite its flaws, NWAP 2002-2016 is a vast improvement over its predecessor. What is urgently needed now is a national debate on this document. The MoEF should translate the document into Indian languages, disseminate it widely, and encourage the holding of workshops and public hearings especially at critical wildlife habitats. It should facilitate NGOs and community groups to carry the message forward. It should subject the Wild Life Act to public scrutiny, and attempt to bring it in line with the policy pronouncements of the NWAP. And just as it has promoted more participatory forms of forest management, it must promote collaborative and joint management of wildlife habitats.

Most important, the wildlife conservation lobby must sit with mass movements, human rights groups and social activists, to hold a dialogue on the various thorny issues of the wildlife-human interface. One such attempt is the series of National Consultations on Wildlife Conservation and People's Livelihood Rights, organised by groups across the country. Without a large-scale people's movement behind it, the NWAP will remain yet another document. Will the accusing glare of the tiger on its cover forever remain a reminder that we failed in our duty towards our fellow creatures?

Ashish Kothari is a founding-member of Kalpavriksh, and coordinator of the technical group formulating India's National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan.